Halfway through Simon Amstell’s new Netflix special, Set Free, he lies down on the stage in the foetal position, clutching the mic like a childhood teddy bear, lamenting: “I thought I was gonna be happy”. Is this a stand-up comedy set? Yes. Is it a self-help seminar as well as a discussion about achieving happiness under capitalism approximately one thousand times more accessible and less annoying than Žižek vs Peterson? Also yes.
Amstell has been a consistent but understated presence in 21st-century British pop culture, partly because of his refusal (or inability) to play the game. He cut his teeth on Popworld making celebrities mildly uncomfortable, established a household name for himself hosting Never Mind The Buzzcocks making celebrities storm off, and then left the world of presenting to focus on more creative endeavours – stand-up, the short-lived TV series Grandma’s House, a couple of films.
Regardless of format, though, his bread and butter remains the same. His first stand-up show, 2010’s Do Nothing, established a blueprint and tone for what was to come. Taking some influence from Russell Brand’s 00s stand-up, which works through addiction, shame, celebrity and spirituality via stories about his own life, Do Nothing is perfection of the form. From unreciprocated crushes on people who are like him “but better” to monologues about the importance of being at one with the universe, it’s a tight hour or so of personal comedy whose self-awareness steers it clearly away from self-pity or New Age cringe. You don’t need to know any of this before diving into Set Free, though.
Incidentally, the foundations of Simon Amstell’s stand-up have transpired to be much the same as the foundations of online humour now. Almost every joke revolves around mental health, social anxiety, wider economic turmoil and intimacy issues. It’s a search for happiness in an environment where the odds – absent parents, bigotry, your own terrible personality – feel stacked against you, and where happiness itself often ends up being the punchline. The reason he was lying down on the stage is because a charismatic “guru” in LA said the fact that he now enjoys meditation, rather than seeing it as a duty, means he has gone “from discipline to blissipline”.
This combination of soul-searching and self-depreciation essentially makes him The People’s Comedian. Indeed, if you were to create a monster shitposter from the collected big-hitters of today’s memetic output, they would more than likely be a depressed gay vegan with daddy issues. Crucially, though, Amstell’s stand-up isn’t just a list of abject thoughts and awkward encounters – it also offers what all good art is supposed to offer: hope. A way out, or at least the illusion of one.
Amstell’s work is structured like a therapeutic process, hacking through past encounters, relationships and behavioural patterns in order to reach some sort of clearing. In the case of his stand-up, the answer usually arrives in the form of a spiritually influenced mantra such as, “I don’t do the poo, the most I do is allow the poo”, which is more profound than it sounds. Combining material from previous shows, What Is This and To Be Free, Set Free is a series of dejected and horny tales that each carry their own sharp stab of recognition. Feeling guilty about fancying people when you’re in a relationship, sticking a finger up your arse to hurry things along as a form of non-traditional bulimia, interrupting a misogynistic argument in a sweat lodge to thank your mother and child self for “doing the best in difficult circumstances” before covering your body in mud. You know, all the usual stuff. Honesty leads to peace, in Amstell’s mind, both personally and on a wider scale. Embarrassment and shame are dismantled mainly through self-deprecation but, while the majority of his sets are spent being critical of himself and others, they conclude with surprising kindness.
Do Nothing is one of the first “confessional” stand-up sets I remember seeing (but obviously isn’t the first to exist). The most popular forms of British stand-up tend to be observational, surreal, political – but rarely personal. Over the last decade, though, the biographic and the traumatic have served as the most tapped wells for comedy in all forms. From John Mulaney and Tiffany Haddish to Girls and Fleabag, American audiences in particular have fallen in love with the personal as the artistic – an affair that soured over the last few years as the lines between the personal and the artistic have warped.
Did we not rate Louis CK for “saying what everyone was thinking” on the grounds that he was condemning them, not actually doing them? Was the strength of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, an interesting subversion of the form regardless of whether or not you enjoyed it, partially because it was intended as a swan song? Gadsby’s decision to return for a follow-up, this year’s Douglas, was met with much less favour, with New Yorker critic Hilton Als called it “solipsism masquerading as art”. What began as a rebellion became a pity party.
Aziz Ansari’s comeback, too – which addresses accusations of sexual misconduct and concludes by declaring the old Aziz “dead” – landed awkwardly. It seems we have spent a long time elevating personal comedy without actually given much consideration to who the person behind it was, but ultimately art has to serve a function. CK and Ansari’s comebacks fell flat because they were trapped in a self-conscious loop where they couldn’t win over a mass audience whether they addressed the allegations in the set or not, and Gadsby’s insistence on turning her problems back onto the world can only hold its own for so long before feeling depleting.
The problem with personal or confessional comedy in 2019 is that sadness, trauma, spiritual emptiness – these are no longer personal problems, they’re a collective ones. We’re all depressed, we’re all traumatised, we’re all shitty people one way or another. Why require 75 minutes of stand-up comedy to tell us that when we scroll through hundreds of memes per day that say the same? Is it even comforting? More pressingly, is it even funny?
The answer, of course, is yes. Obviously it is. Honestly the better question is 'what’s the point in anything bad happening to you if you can’t joke about it later from a place of resolve.' In Do Nothing Simon Amstell outlines the format for comedy as “tragedy plus time plus joke” (Gadsby’s take on that is apparently severing the third compound), and this has served him well so far since each set seems to be structured as a series of stumbles towards a lesson learned.
Though there isn’t much to differentiate it from Amstell’s previous stand-ups, Set Free is a timely reminder that earnestness and cynicism, pain and laughter, can co-exist – and are usually both the better for it. Being attracted to younger men? Not funny in itself. Learning, through therapy, that you were “actually trying to save the 18-year-old in me who wasn’t saved”? Kind of a cliché. Addressing the audience with “You may prefer to think of me as a pervert, but I’m actually a narcissist”? Funny. Then adding, after a long pause, “and a pervert”? Magnifique. Inject it. Big mood etc.
A significant portion of Amstell’s audience probably do view his sets as pure entertainment, not revelatory gold. Not even the take-away from his stories is going to resonate with everyone beyond the abstract, but for sad, horny people for whom the world makes no sense, he does have some of the most precise and universal advice going for someone whose job isn't "life coach". As I checked the news the day after Set Free premiered to discover the Amazon rainforest has been on fire for three weeks, one line in particular shot to the front of my brain: “We’re all going to die. Let’s go to a sex party.”